Essential Architecture- Washington D.C.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


James Ingo Freed, FAIA, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners


Washington, DC






stone cladding



Interior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Exterior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum viewed from Raoul Wallenberg Place (15th St. SW.)

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a national institution situated in a prominent location adjacent to The National Mall in Washington, DC (in between 14th and 15th streets SW); however, it is not a constituent institution of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum is dedicated to documenting, studying, and interpreting the history of the Holocaust. It also serves as the United States' official memorial to the millions of European Jews and others killed during the Holocaust under directives of Nazi Germany. While the United States government provided some funding for both the building and continued operations of the museum, a majority of the funding comes from private sources, Jewish movie director Steven Spielberg being amongst the most notable donors. The street that the museum is located on is named Raoul Wallenberg Place, after the Swedish diplomat who is believed to have saved 100,000 Jews in Hungary during the Second World War. The museum building sits on land that previously belonged to the United States Department of Agriculture. Two of the three annex buildings that sat on this property were demolished to build a museum whose design would be wholly about the Holocaust.

The US Congress authorized the creation of the museum in 1980, based on the 1979 report of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, established by Jimmy Carter. The museum was charged with maintaining a Committee on Conscience, to monitor and issue an "'institutional scream' to alert the conscience of the world and spark public outcry" at the earliest signs of genocidal intent.

The building was designed by James Ingo Freed, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Additionally, Maurice N Finegold, FAIA, of Finegold Alexander + Associates Inc, was a consulting architect on the project. Though the building on the outside is rather monumental with clean lines, in keeping with the large governmental buildings in the immediate context, the interior was meant to provoke more intimate and visceral responses.

The facilities house a number of exhibitions, artworks, publications, and artifacts relating to the Holocaust. The museum collects and preserves material evidence, distributes educational materials, and produces public programming. The Holocaust Museum also holds annual Holocaust commemorations and remembrances.

[edit] The Permanent Exhibition
The Permanent Exhibition at the museum is a chronological history of the Holocaust. It begins in 1933 with Adolf Hitler's rise to power, and ends with the liberation of the Camps, and the opening of Israel. The exhibition is broken up into three floors covering different years. The fourth floor (the beginning of the exhibition) covers the years 1933 to 1939 focusing on the exclusion of Jews from society and the buildup to the Second World War ending with the invasion of Poland by Germany. The third floor covers the years 1940 to 1945 focusing on the Concentration Camps, Killing Centers, and Ghettos. The second floor focuses on resistance, rescue, and liberation, and the post-war years. At the end of the exhibition there is a testimony film of Holocaust survivors that runs continuously.

The Tower of Faces is part of the permanent exhibition of the museum. It forms a three-story tower within the building, and is lined with about one thousand photographs of everyday life before the Holocaust in the small Lithuanian shtetl (village) of Eisiskes. There are photographs of family groups, weddings, picnics, swimming parties, sporting events, holiday celebrations, gardening, bicycling and other aspects of daily life. Before the war, the shtetl population was about 3,500, almost all Jewish. In September 1941, German SS, assisted by Lithuanian auxiliaries, rounded up the people of the shtetl, along with about one thousand Jews from the surrounding area, and systematically killed them all.

The photographs were taken by Yitzhak Uri Katz and his associates. They are part of the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. Dr. Eliach lived in Eisiskes as a young child, and is the granddaughter of Yitzhak Uri Katz. [1]

The museum also includes the Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a database of survivors and their families. Established to assist survivors and their families in their search for relatives and friends, the Registry now contains information on approximately 195,000 survivors and their families worldwide. The Registry is named after Benjamin and Vladka Meed, founder of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

To enter the Permanent Exhibition, visitors must acquire a free timed pass. The passes are available from the museum on the day of your visit or online for a service fee.

[edit] Criticism of the Museum
The museum has been criticized by German writer Matthias Hass for recontextualizing the Holocaust in terms of American values.[2] The entrance to the museum is adorned with quotations from George Washington and the Declaration of Independence, and the exhibitions are filled with references to American values.[3] Hass argues that by transporting the events of the Holocaust from a European to an American context, "the perception of them is fundamentally altered" and the Museum ends up exploiting the very history it is trying to preserve. [4]

[edit] The Committee on Conscience
Additionally, the museum houses the offices of the Committee on Conscience[1], a joint governmentally and privately funded think tank, which by Presidential mandate engages in genocide research in all areas of the world. Recently, it has established itself as a leading non-partisan commenter on the Darfur Genocide in the nation of Sudan, as well as on the war-torn region of Chechnya in Russia, a zone which the Committee believes has the capacity to produce genocidal atrocities. However, the committee does not have policy-making powers, and serves solely as an advisorial institution to the United States government and those of other nations who seek its services.

[edit] The Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative

The dedication plaque outside the museum.

The Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative seeks to collect, share and visually present to the world critical information on emerging crises that may lead to genocide or related crimes against humanity.[5]

The first mapping initiative - undertaken jointly with Google Earth - focused on the Darfur Conflict. [6] Beginning with Darfur, the museum wants to build an interactive “global crisis map" - a new tool to share and understand information quickly, to "see the situation", enabling more effective prevention and response.[7]

[edit] See also

A panoramic view of the Hall of Remembrance
The museum also includes "Daniel's Story," a walk through of the fictional trials and tribulations that Daniel had gone through. Although the story was fictional, facts from other Holocaust survivor stories were included. This area was meant to be visited by the children. It is suggested that children under 11 do not visit the permanent exhibition.
On the first floor of the museum, a model of what the ghettos may have looked like are present. The presented ghetto model is life size.[citation needed]

[edit] Further reading
Berenbaum, Michael, The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Little Brown and Company, Boston New York London 1993.
Freed, James Ingo, "The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum," Assemblage 9 (June 1989), 58-79.
Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl, "Understanding the Holocaust through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum," JAE: Journal of Architectural Education 48 (May 1995), 240-249.
Sorkin, Michael, "The Holocaust Museum: Between Beauty and Horror," Progressive Architecture 74 (February 1993).
Young, James E., The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1993.